Passenger trains on Vancouver Island – let’s get realistic

Chemainus – Inoted with some dismay the recent articles in our local papers regarding the negotiations to revive the passenger train on Southern Vancouver Island. I am assuming that they mean the Nanaimo to Victoria corridor presumably with the intention of providing a rapid commuter service between these two centres. Let’s get realistic and look at what is needed and what will be the effects of such a service.

Let’s first look at speed. In order to get our commuters from Nanaimo to Victoria faster than the present Greyhound bus, which does the trip in one hour and 50 minutes centre to centre, the train would need to do the same journey in about one hour and 30 minutes station to station.

This is a distance of approximately 70 miles or 113 kilometres, if you prefer that measurement. This gives an average speed of 47 mph or 75 kph.

Allowing for some stops along the way (Ladysmith, Chemainus, Duncan, Cobble Hill, Shawnigan etc.) I would estimate that the train would need to travel at a top speed of at least 60 mph or 100 kph.

Now can you imagine the effect on the local people of a train travelling at 60 mph or 100 kph through Saltair, or the northern outskirts of Duncan, or Cobble Hill or the First Nations Reserves along the way? And unless a lot of money is spent this will be on unfenced track and with many uncontrolled roadway crossings. Let’s look at the number of trains needed. We can’t imagine just one train in each direction each morning and another in the evening will suffice – what a waste of equipment, money and manpower that would be. If we want trains each way every hour we will need to twin the track or construct pass-bys in order to enable the trains to pass each other.

Where do we get the money to buy up the land needed for this extra track etc., and are the landowners willing to sell their land at a reasonable price in order to get trains whizzing past their homes at high speed several times a day? Now what about the condition of track? In order to run the trains at the speeds that would be necessary for the timing that some are hoping for on the route between Nanaimo and Victoria all the rails and sub track would need to be replaced and many of the curves would need to be redesigned and cambered. And let’s not forget the human factor. In areas where regular trains

are run, in Europe and Eastern North America, the population is aware of the dangers of trespassing on the tracks. It’s part of their culture. How different is the situation here on Vancouver Island where walking on the tracks is seen as a right.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against trains as being a very good, fast and efficient way of transporting large numbers of people between two points but we must look at all the factors involved and the costs. The cost of rebuilding the line from Victoria to Nanaimo would be over $1 million per kilometre and here we are looking at a distance of almost 115 kms; that’s $115 million and we haven’t bought any rolling stock yet.

Finally let’s look at the nearest thing that we have in Western Canada to a commuter train – the West Coast Express, which runs between Mission, B.C. in the Fraser Valley and Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver. This route runs five trains in from Mission to Vancouver every

weekday morning and five or six trains back out to Mission every weekday evening – hard luck for anyone who wants to go in the opposite direction! The distance is approximately 52 miles or 84 kilometres, and the journey time with several intermediate stops is one hour and 15 minutes giving an average speed of 42 mph or 67 kph. I do not know what the top speed is.

The West Coast Express travels on the CPR main line which is maintained by CPR for their heavy freight trains and is built to much higher standards than the relatively light track which exists here on the island at the present time. This train travels through a densely populated urban area – hardly the description of the countryside between Nanaimo and Victoria. The fare on the West Coast Express is $12.50 each way. If we applied that fare to the traffic density which existed on the service that previously operated on our local tracks it would hardly pay for the diesel fuel.

Using the speed and distance figures for the West Coast Express and applying them to the Nanaimo to Victoria run the journey time would be just over two hours each way, the Greyhound already is faster than this. Finally and in summary, to all those who are proposing a commuter train between Nanaimo and Victoria, have you considered all the factors involved in such a project do you have any real experience of this type of rail service? It would be, at best, a regular commuter train and as such how much better would it be after you have spent all that money than what we had two years ago? I suggest, in fact I beg of you, run this proposal past some people who understand the complexities of rail transport and also some people who understand finance.

If you could get someone such as Warren Buffet or more locally David Black to invest substantial sums in this project then I believe the project may be worthwhile. But until then I strongly advise against any level of government from local to national putting any more money into what will be at best a drain on the finances and at worst a complete waste of money.

At the end what will we have achieved? We will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to provide a service no better than the Greyhound bus service that is already in existence and which hardly anyone uses.

Graham Jones


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